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Your ideas count: How airmen's suggestions are changing the Air Force

Air Force reaches out to 'every airman' to solve its most vexing problems

Aug. 6, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Service members of the year
Gen. Larry Spencer, Air Force vice chief of staff, says he and other Air Force leaders read each comment submitted to the Every Airman Counts campaign. (Alan Lessig/staff)
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Here’s how airmen have responded so far to the Every Airman Counts and Every Dollar Counts campaigns:
■ 11,700 ideas from Every Dollar Counts campaign
■ 19,000 views of Every Airman Counts blog
■ 525 responses to Every Airman Counts blog
■ 1,100 average daily hits to Every Airman Counts blog
■ $358,000 savings expected for the rest of the fiscal year by disconnecting unused phone lines at the Pentagon

Airmen at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., suggested using cars already in the installation’s inventory to pick up distinguished visitors on the flight line rather than leasing expensive vehicles. The Air Force agreed.

The man in charge of telephones at the Pentagon checked out every line and found hundreds not in use. He disconnected them, netting a $358,000 savings just in the remaining fiscal year.

Many airmen said they thought hearing from real victims of sex crimes could drive home the seriousness of the problem. They also said they preferred small group sexual assault awareness and prevention training and noted the obvious discomfort of some commanders when talking about the issue.

On July 26, the Air Force launched a video series featuring first-hand accounts of sex assault survivor stories. It’s also working on updated, standardized SAPR training.

The service has come to airmen to help solve two of the biggest problems facing the force: The budget and sexual assault. Airmen responded, generating 11,000 cost-cutting ideas in one month as part of the Every Dollar Counts campaign.

Many of those — like using cars in the Air Force fleet to pick up visitors at Andrews — are already implemented, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said.

“There’s a list a mile long of that stuff,” he said in a recent interview with Air Force Times.

Encouraged by the success, leadership began a similar initiative July 16 targeting sexual assault. Called Every Airman Counts, the blog on the Air Force portal asks service members what’s working and what isn’t.

Some 19,000 people visited the site in the first 2½ weeks. It generated more than 525 responses in the same timeframe.

Spencer said the key to coming up with both initiatives was recognizing the Air Force’s greatest resource.

“Our strength is our people,” he said. “Who better to go to with this challenge than directly to our airmen?

“Since 1947, they have been out there being innovative and solving problems. What we’ve tapped into now is getting our airmen involved in big, Air Force-wide problems. They are responding overwhelmingly,” he said. “We need to understand what they’re thinking. We need to understand what their ideas are. It does us no good to sit at the Pentagon and think we have all the good ideas. We have to connect right to the wing, pull those ideas up and put out policy that works.”

Leading the way

Spencer recently talked with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about the cost-savings already underway thanks to airmen’s ideas.

Sequestration resulted in civilian furloughs, stand-downs of fighter and bomber squadrons, emergency-only repairs at bases and a host of other cutbacks.

The message to airmen: “Look at your area of influence, look at where you work, question what you’re spending, ask can we do it differently, do we have to spend that much for it? They’re questions we’d ask ourselves if we were sitting at home balancing our checkbook.”

Those ideas went straight to the top of the Air Force.

“We got the authority to approve them right here,” Spencer said.

There is no dollar count just yet. But “we got a lot more savings from airmen in the field than we ever dreamed of. A lot of these things seemed like small things. It added up to a lot of money,” the vice chief of staff said.

While sequestration remains a tremendous challenge in the DoD, said Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Megan Schafer, the cuts help ease that burden in small ways.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense took notice. So did the Army, Spencer said, and both have been asking questions about how the Air Force did it.

“I couldn’t be more pleased and excited about that,” Spencer said. “If we have a problem and challenge our airmen ... they will respond.”

Anonymous feedback

Every Airman Counts started by asking for anonymous feedback. It is the first major initiative out of the expanded and reorganized Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office at the Pentagon headed by Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward.

Reducing sexual assault is the first order of business, Spencer said.

“But the overall message is every airman deserves dignity and respect,” he said. “That’s a big deal for me personally and for the Air Force. There’s not much that keeps me up at night, but the problem we have with sexual assault, it does.”

Blog posts are often long, thoughtful and engaging. They come from airmen, their spouses and others. There are personal stories. Spencer reads all of them. So do Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, he said.

In his office at the Pentagon, Spencer gets daily updates on the number of responses and the frequency of traffic to the site.

One woman writes she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor while deployed. “The first thing I was told by my new supervisor when I [returned home] was I needed to be kept under control. I was treated like crap. My badge and beret was stripped.”

Victims should have a place to report sexual assaults in every deployed theater, she wrote, and they should be protected from their units at the onset of an investigation.

Posters frequently respond to one another. It’s a good first step, Spencer said. “I want them in a dialogue with each other. I want airmen thinking about and talking about this problem. In the dining hall, sitting around watching TV in the dorm, out working the front gate — I want them talking about sexual assault, the problem we have and how we can solve it.”

The vice chief compares it to military drunken driving a couple of decades ago. “We put a lot of fire power on that problem. It was to the point where the three letters D-U-I scared everybody. No one wanted to get a DUI because they knew it was bad for the Air Force, it was bad for the mission and it was going to be bad for them if they got one. I was a captain or major at the time. I was scared to drive through the front gate of the base thinking I might get pulled over and tested for alcohol — and I don’t drink.”

Airmen watched each other at the base club after work, he said. They wouldn’t hesitate to take the keys of someone they suspected of having too much. Everybody talked about it. DUIs dropped.

Spencer wants to see the same results for sexual assault.

“We want this stop sign in their minds to say I can’t do this for a lot of reasons. First is every airman deserves dignity and respect and I’m not going to do that to another airman. I’m not going to do that to anybody but I’m not going to do that to a fellow airman because we need each other,” the vice chief said.

“This is not a program or a fad to throw out there and say, ‘Look at what we did.,’ he said. “Not being able to trust each other jeopardizes our mission — that is something we cannot accept.”

Spencer planned to host the first Web chat for Every Airman Counts this month. More will follow.

This fall, Air Force wing commanders and senior enlisted advisers will meet in Washington to talk about sex assault prevention. There will be similar meetings for three- and four-stars, Spencer said.

“We’re firing on every cylinder we’ve got on this issue,” he said.

It starts with every airman.

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